TSG IntelBrief: Bahrain Uprising's Third Anniversary & No Solution In Sight
• The ruling al-Khalifa regime believes it has the upper hand against the three year-old uprising—the most recent cycle of decades of political opposition—but significant protests will mark the third anniversary on February 14
• Disputes within the Khalifa family over how to deal with the opposition and chronic political challenges will not be resolved in the near-term
• Iran and Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) leader Saudi Arabia will continue to try to influence the situation in Bahrain to their advantage.
The third anniversary of the most recent uprising of Bahrain’s Shi’a majority approaches and a comprehensive political solution is far from sight.
In understanding the context of this intifada it’s instructive to note there are no official census figures on Shi’a, Sunni or other Muslim sects in Bahrain. Its census does not ask about it or make a distinction—in no small way indicative of perspective involved. Estimates range from 60 to 70 percent of the population are Shi’a, and there’s little argument they make up the large preponderance of the population.
After months of little progress, coupled with arrests and intimidation of its leaders, the main opposition group Wifaq (Accord) walked out of the second “national dialogue” held from February – December 2013. The government formally ended the dialogue on January 9, 2014. One week later, however, Wifaq leader Ali Salman found himself, along with other Shi’a opposition leaders, in direct talks with Crown Prince Salman bin Hamad al-Khalifa. Subsequently, the government’s travel ban on the Wifaq leader was dropped.
The palace meeting was significant for a number of reasons. It represented the re-emergence of the heir apparent on matters involving the opposition; he had been eclipsed since articulating his “Seven Principles” for a political solution in March 2011. He had also been outmaneuvered by anti-compromise al-Khalifa hardliners led by 80 year-old Prime Minister Khalifa bin Salman al-Khalifa and his close associates in the Royal Court, the Bahrain Defense Forces, and the Interior Ministry. The January palace meeting also demonstrated the regime’s new willingness to meet a key opposition demand that had been unmet during the two formal national dialogues in 2011 and 2013—that the opposition conduct talks with senior members of the ruling family.
The US has maintained a quiet role in Bahrain over the last three years, primarily urging the regime to compromise and restrain its security forces. Some sales of US defense systems have been withheld, though the force projection and counterterrorism mission of the 6,000-strong US personnel based at Fifth Fleet headquarters in Bahrain has continued unimpeded since the uprising began.
Some Political Shifts Create Cause for Optimism…
The shift from broad national dialogue to separate, formal talks with senior regime figures reflects a potentially significant move on both sides of Bahrain’s political divide. In March 2013, King Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa appointed his son, Crown Prince Salman—a consistent advocate of major reforms that meet many opposition demands—to the position of first deputy Prime Minister. The heir apparent is also benefitting politically from the prime minister’s embarrassment related to a UK investigation involving one of the world’s largest aluminum producers, Aluminum Bahrain (ALBA), even though the case has largely run aground due to lack of sufficient evidence. The reduced frequency and intensity of demonstrations in 2013 made the opposition appear somewhat more reasonable—weakening hardliner arguments for an iron fist response as the sole means to address dissent.
Among outside players, Iran’s new government has muted its rhetorical support for hardline opposition factions pushing for regime change, as part of Tehran’s effort to end its ostracism in the Persian Gulf. Since early 2013, Saudi Arabia has given moderates in the Khalifa regime, such as Crown Prince Salman, somewhat more latitude to explore compromises and concessions. Although the basic Saudi vision of preserving al-Khalifa rule has not changed, its position is a stark contrast from sending 1000 troops and armor into Bahrain in March 2011, as the spearhead of a GCC force to suppress the uprising. The Saudis see the Bahrain uprising as a vital threat to the integrity of the overwhelmingly Sunni GCC, and the Saudis have stated in certain terms that a Shi’a takeover of Bahrain would not be tolerated. It is in large part this stance that has led Saudi Arabia to push for greater GCC political and security integration, although opposition to the Saudi plan from Oman and some of the other GCC states caused that effort to stall at the December GCC summit in Kuwait.
But More Reasons to Be Pessimistic…
Even though political dialogue took place during most of 2013, the January 15 meeting between the crown prince and the opposition is unlikely to put Bahrain on the road to a major political breakthrough. There is little inclination within the Khalifa family—and Saudi leadership—to offer the opposition its demand for the constitutional monarchy and representative government it seeks. The Khalifa government implemented only a few of the November 2011 Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry’s 26 recommendations on peaceful protests and security service reform—reinforcing long term opposition mistrust on the issues. Prime Minister Khalifa has been weakened somewhat by scandal allegations, but there are no indications he will resign and none of his hardline associates have been removed.
Opposition groups are almost certain to organize significant demonstrations to mark the third anniversary of the uprising that began February 14, 2011. Such demonstrations could produce a renewed cycle of confrontations between protesters and security forces.
Toward the end of 2014, elections are scheduled for Bahrain’s lower house of parliament, the Council of Representatives (COR). It’s likely much of the Shi’a population won’t participate in the 2014 elections, and COR will likely continue as a largely Sunni body (the 40-person COR currently has 32 Sunnis and eight Shi’a, none of whom are from major opposition organizations).
Another portentous trend is the increasing, though still infrequent, use of more violent tactics by the opposition against regime security forces, though still infrequent occurrences. On December 30, 2013, authorities seized a boat that originated in Iraq and carried Iranian weaponry and bomb-making material reportedly to be delivered to violent opposition elements. As TSG reported in the IntelBrief of December 10, 2013 (Bahrain: The Gulf’s Litmus Test of Resolve), Iranian President Rouhani might seek to ease tensions in the Gulf, but he does not control the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), which strongly supports Bahrain’s opposition and has been implicated in several destabilization plots since the 1990s.
• Divisions within both the Khalifa government and the opposition will be a negative factor for constructive steps toward even moderate, near term political progress; but continued dialogue will help in easing renewed confrontation between protesters and security forces
• Iran’s President Rouhani will continue to mute criticism of the Khalifa regime, but IRGC and other Iranian factions will continue to support hardline and violent factions within Bahrain’s opposition
• The Saudi “red line” against regime change and Shi’a dominance in Bahrain will persist, but its leadership will allow al-Khalifa moderates to continue to pursue dialogue with the opposition
• With the opposition and al-Khalifa regime engaging in dialogue, the US will not reduce its military presence, though some arms sales will remain on hold.
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